Russian Orthodox Church Loses Its Leader

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Patriarch Alexy II, who died Friday at age 79 of a long-standing heart ailment, le d the great revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, transforming it from a subservient and entirely dependent tool of the state in Soviet times to a rich and powerful ally of the state today. A shrewd diplomat and politician, he was elected Patriarch in 1990 by the Church's National Council (in which both clergy and laity are represented) in its first real secret ballot since 1917, and carefully orchestrated the ROC's role as Russia's dominant church, just short of official-religion status. Now, the Church faces the challenge of choosing a new Patriarch to carry forward his legacy.

"Patriarch Alexy II had the knack of maintaining the ROC's mainstream, suppressing everything that went beyond the mainstream's framework," according to Professor Sergei Filatov, a top Russian authority of religious affairs. "He kept in check both reactionary and liberal movements within the Church."

Though always careful to remain in harmony with the state, Alexy gradually managed not only to strengthen the footing of the ROC in the religious domain, but to expand its influence more broadly. One measure of that influence may be the fact that the Pope has yet to visit Moscow. Starting with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia's political leadership has repeatedly sought to invite the Catholic pontiff to Moscow, but that proposal was sharply rebuffed by the Orthodox Patriarchate, angered by what the ROC views as Catholic proselytism in Russia. In April 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin was considering inviting Pope John Paul II to Moscow, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the Patriarchate's spokesman, said bluntly that "the Pope cannot visit any country without the consent of this country's church." Of course, the ROC is not established in any law as "this country's church", but the Pope was not invited.

Under Alexy's stewardship, the ROC has grown into one of the richest commercial establishments in Russia, and has begun to penetrate all walks of public and social life. It gained strong footing in the armed forces and security services with chaplains in combat units and chapels in buildings of the FSB, successor to the KGB. But the Church didn't have everything its own way. Although it managed to have lessons on Orthodox culture included in the school curriculum in several Russian regions, earlier this week, the Penza region's prosecutor's office formally announced that holding such lessons in contravention of law.

One of Alexy's most important victories, attained last May under Vladimir Putin's personal patronage — and with much public toadying to then President — was reunification of the ROC and the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), believed to be 1.5 million strong. Ending the 86 year-old schism brought about by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which forced into exile hundreds of thousands of Russians, was a solemn, spiritual and highly emotional event. Still, the Church's alliance with the increasingly authoritarian Russian state has alienated a lot of believers, Filatov notes. Since May 2007, the now ROC-supervised ROCOR has lost some 50% of its congregation abroad and 90% of the flock it had established in Russia among believers who had joined because they considered the ROC too close to the state.

Because Putin's ruling United Russia (UR) party has proclaimed "conservative nationalism" as its guiding ideology, the Kremlin needs the ROC and its Patriarch to play a legitimizing role.

Observers believe there are four potential successors: Metropolitan Filaret, who heads the ROC in Belarus; Metropolitan Yuvenali, Chair of the Canonization Commission; Metropolitan Cyril, Chair of the Foreign Relations Department; and Metropolitan Clement, administrator of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Metropolitan Filaret is widely respected, but old and frail. Cyril is the considered the most ambitious and energetic, and more focused than his peers are on domestic and international religious, political and commercial affairs. At one point, Cyril was considered Alexy's heir, but the now-departed Patriarch, allegedly concerned over Cyril's ambitions and zeal, had restrained him in recent years and removed some of Cyril's key allies from important positions in Moscow, sending them to far-away eparchies. Cyril's record as state-appointed supervisor of the tax-free tobacco and alcohol trade during the 1990s may have helped the ROC to support itself, but it may not endear him to the believers.

Metropolitan Clement is the least conspicuous of the prospective successors, and sources say he enjoyed Alexy's tacit support against Cyril. Filatov contends that Clement also smartly uses his administrative position to promote his interests.

Whomever is chosen, however, the Kremlin will be secure in the knowledge that the next Partiarch will work in harmony with the state. It may not be the official Church of a resurgent Russia, but the Church may have much in common with the state — rather than elect the new Patriarch at the National Council, which chose Alexy II, the ROC plans to choose his successor at its Episcopal Assembly, where only the clergy vote.